Learning the Power of Well-Chosen Words

John Lewis

Congressman John Lewis of Georgia, who passed away on July 17, 2020, was one of our nation’s greatest African American leaders. An advocate of “good trouble,” or nonviolent resistance to oppression, he is rightly celebrated as a civil rights icon and for using his voice on behalf of all Americans during his 33 years in the House of Representatives. He is also a testament to how the humblest beginnings can produce lives of towering heroism.

Preaching to the Chickens: The Story of Young John Lewis is a beautiful picture book about Lewis’s childhood on a farm in Alabama. Author Jabari Asim drew on interviews with Lewis and anecdotes from his memoir, Walking with the Wind, to craft this moving account of a young boy’s faith and care for all living things.

The young John Lewis wants to be a preacher when he grows up—a leader whose words will spur hearts to change and minds to think. When he is put in charge of caring for the farm’s 60 chickens, he discovers that they make a responsive congregation, clucking back to the sound of his voice. He practices preaching to them, telling the hens, “Blessed are the peacemakers,” when they squabble over their morning meal. Protective of his flock, he tries baptizing them, rescues one from a well and saves a hen that his parents were ready to barter away by convincing them to trade seeds and eggs instead, an experience that teaches him “to speak up for those who can’t speak for themselves.” The care he gives the chickens will become a reflection of the way he lives his life, “hungering and thirsting for righteousness.”

E.B. Lewis’s full-page, light-dappled illustrations of rural life are stunning, and it’s no surprise this book was named a New York Times Best Illustrated Children’s Book. The last image, of young John preaching with raised hands, sunlight shining on him as the chickens look on and listen, is a moving portrait of the power of small actions and a beautiful way to foreshadow that this young boy would soon become a leader in the struggle against segregation and a fiery speaker at the March on Washington.

To help older children understand the Civil Rights Movement, John Lewis collaborated with writer Andrew Aydin and artist Nate Powell to create a trilogy of graphic novels, March, about his life. This best-selling series is a gripping, sometimes shocking account of a very young man taking life-and-death risks to protest racial segregation in the South, and remaining true to his code of nonviolence despite the violence done to him. March Book 3, a deeply felt chronicle of the events leading up to the voting rights marches in Selma, Alabama, won the National Book Award.

Lastly, a touching complement to the story of John Lewis bringing the good news to his chickens is the HBO documentary We Are the Dream: The Kids of the Oakland MLK Oratorical Fest. The film follows several schoolchildren as they study the speeches of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and practice their oratorical skills to prepare for a national public-speaking contest. We see them discover how eloquence and poetry can lift people up and be used as a force to benefit their community.

Here’s to learning the power of well-chosen words,